I never used to be afraid of flying. Ok, sometimes I had sweaty hands in cases of turbulence or I did not feel 100% comfortable taking off, but generally I really enjoyed the entire trip. Even during the less comfortable moments, I put my trust in the reassuringly responsible pilot on the flight deck and believed that no matter what, he would take care of us all and do everything to bring the plane to its destination safely.
But then there was Germanwings flight 9525. In March last year, co-pilot Andreas Lubitz committed suicide by deliberately crashing a plane in the French Alps, killing 150 innocent people, including his fellow pilot. This tragic incident changed my confidence in flying, and I know others for whom the Germanwings tragedy marked a turning point in their perception of ‘flying comfort’.
Please do not try to convince me how safe it is to fly, or point out that the risk of dying in a car is much higher. I also know that this fear I have developed is largely irrational. But rational or not, the suicidal pilot seems to have become a plausible scenario in our minds. This possibility was also brought up recently after EgyptAir flight 804 disappeared from the radar on 19th May, unleashing all kinds of speculation about what may have happened. Almost three weeks have gone by and the whole affair remains a mystery.
With the Germanwings flight we knew quite soon what had happened. The news that an experienced, but apparently very depressed, co-pilot had managed to crash the plane by shutting out the captain who was trying to come back after a toilet break, shocked us all. As expected, regulators jumped on the issue and started to re-evaluate the security risks associated with pilots leaving the cockpit during non-critical phases of the flight.
As horrible as it was, the Germanwings incident proved that current regulations are effective, since the reinforced cockpit door, which was installed following the 9/11 attacks, could not be opened from the outside. But in fact the new regulations created the very conditions allowing this tragedy to occur. Due to the sensitivity of the issue and the immense media coverage, everybody understood that doing nothing was not an option. This led to some obvious overreactions as to how to ‘solve’ the problem. The worst one I remember was the idea to build a toilet inside the cockpit, so a pilot would never have to leave.
Soon after the cause of the Germanwings crash became known, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) issued a so-called Safety Information Bulletin (SIB 2015-04), recommending a ‘two person in the cockpit’ policy to operators. This recommended policy – which became ‘common practice’ – led to other concerns within the aviation community. Because how can you really prevent a suicidal pilot from crashing a plane? And how safe is it to open the cockpit door more regularly? The presence in the cockpit of a cabin crew member with no operational knowledge and a less robust background check will neither improve security nor safety. Besides, any new design or procedure that would enable the flight deck door to be opened from the passenger cabin would reduce the flight deck integrity significantly.